Hearing Men’s Voices: A Signature Program of FJMC

ART SPAR edits a discussion among some FJMC mentschen

by Art Spar

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The 2011 Rosh Hashanah issue of CJ included the article “A Mentsch is Born,” about FJMC’s Hearing Men’s Voices program. Since that time HMV programs have proliferated across the continent. Eight mentschen gathered for a (virtual) conversation in early December.

Moderator Paul Davidson (Temple Israel, Sharon, Massachusetts): Each of us is a Hearing Men’s Voices leader. Our goal tonight is to share our best practices with each other. Who’d like to begin?

Mark Givarz (Congregation B’nai Amoona, St. Louis, Missouri): Our HMV theme this year is spirituality. On Rosh Hashanah we did a Hearing Men’s Voices program as an alternative to the Musaf service on the second day. (We modified the rules to allow women to join in.) The topic was seeking God. We formed two circles of about 14 people each to discuss the questions: Do you ever seek God? If so, have you found God? The groups talked for about 90 minutes, and we could have gone on for hours. The big discovery was that people can find spirituality in alternative ways to prayer.

Neal Fineman (Temple Israel, Sharon, Massachusetts): Our guys are passionate about their participation. We average about 16 guys; there’s usually a lot of laughing; the guys enjoy it. It’s really catching on. We don’t have to make phone calls anymore. They just come.

Bob Braitman (Temple Shaare Tefilah, Norwood, Massachusetts): Men who come to HMV aren’t necessarily involved in other synagogue activities. I went to one program and I didn’t recognize any of the faces. Since I go to services regularly, I realized that the HMV guys were completely different. By introducing HMV into synagogue life, we’ve created a completely new on-ramp to the Jewish community. In his article in this issue of CJ, Rabbi Charles Simon’ writes about guys who aren’t turned on by traditional prayer.

Mark Travis (Temple Beth Judea, Buffalo Grove, Illinois): Our HMV group has been attracting about 15 to 20 people per session. How do we get people involved? We conducted a survey among young guys in their 30s and 40s. They told us that they don’t need any more formal religion. They get enough from their wives and synagogue. They wanted time with other men to socialize and discuss issues men have in common. The one topic all the men share is children. How should we talk to our children? Like Paul said, the most important recruitment tool is being asked by another man to participate. Our slogan is “I hear voices, voices at home, at work, at play, voices in the synagogue, from my family, but…who hears my voice?”

Bruce Gordon (Congregation Olam Tikvah, Fairfax, Virginia): I’m just getting started, but HMV has perceptions that need to be overcome. Should the leader be a trained psychologist? Can we do this without years of experience? I’m helping get groups started in Fairfax, Rockville, Potomac, Gaithersburg, and in the Tidewater region. What advice can you offer me?

Bob: One of the greatest misconceptions about HMV is directly related to Bruce’s concerns about not being a health care professional. He’s asking himself whether he’s qualified to run a session. It’s my experience that lay people, not professionals, have run the best sessions. The most important criteria for group leadership are to be a good listener, to be empathetic and show caring. It’s about being heard. It’s not about a professional providing wisdom. The leader should come across as, “I’m a guy like you, let’s talk.”

Gary Smith (Adath Israel Congregation, Cincinnati, Ohio): At our last HMV session, we asked each of the participants to discuss the most important lesson or statement that their father or grandfather taught them that most changed their life; in other words, a life lesson. There were multiple generations in the room, and the men were blown away by the similarities and differences shared by men of different ages. But what was most effective was that we only knew each other for years as a name and a face. Who knew what they were like inside? Now we know each other. We can interact and have a more man-to-man conversation. Now we don’t just say hello. We stop and talk, ask questions, share something about ourselves. We truly involved Jewish men in Jewish life.

Bob: I’ve attended several gatherings where men have been brought to tears. I was shocked the first time. Have any of you had that experience?

Neal: I was brought to tears a few times. It happened to me in an HMV session at the FJMC international convention. I was among strangers. I was just thinking about my relationship with my father and I lost it. I didn’t know these people, and I didn’t know how they would react because a lot of them were new to HMV, but that’s what I needed to do. But I was brought to tears, and it was a wonderful release. It was good for me, and I wanted to share with them that you can do this kind of thing.

Paul: I’ve been in numerous sessions hysterically laughing and crying, and every place in between. There are too few places where men can speak in a safe manner. I’ve seen guys linger after an HMV session not wanting to part with each other because they’ve formed bonds. Now I see guys hug when they see each other in shul. Sometimes when I see an HMV buddy, we give each other a knowing glance because we’ve shared something very deep.

Art Spar (New York, New York): HMV doesn’t create emotion. The emotions are already there. We’re creating an environment to release them or experience them. These emotions are residing there all the time and we create something that allows them to come to the surface.

My HMV experience in Manhattan has been interesting. We’ve brought together an eclectic mix of guys from rabbis to non-shulgoers. We meet over dinner. Our first meeting was in a kosher Indian restaurant. The next time it was pizza and salad at my house with a bottle of scotch and some wine on the side. We’re not part of any synagogue or men’s club but we use FJMC materials. We’ve gotten to know each other, our roots and our dreams; and we plan on continuing as long as we enjoy it. We’re just a bunch of Jewish men involving ourselves in Jewish life.

Paul: Is it better to meet at a synagogue or at home?

Art: I’ve been to both. The informality of a home setting allows guys to connect in ways that a synagogue does not.

Bob: Very few synagogues have comfortable spaces. I remember a meeting in a library sitting around a conference table. It was not intimate in the way it would have been in a living room. The big problem with the synagogue is the formality of the setting. It’s not the fact that there’s a Torah down the hall, it’s actually the space itself. And temple classrooms are worse with the little chairs! It’s too bad but most synagogues are not warm spaces.

Paul: Why are you so passionate about Hearing Men’s Voices?

Bob: Many men today don’t know how to form relationships. We get most of our relationships through our wives as couples. We’ve lost the art of conversation, and we’ve lost the art of community. I want a place where men can come together, in a forum that isn’t threatening, to talk about things that are sitting in our hearts and minds, in plain sight, or that we’re completely unaware of. HMV is an extraordinary resource – there’s no other venue like it. The dividend is it will strengthen our synagogues, our clubs, and our communities, but the real value is that it makes our lives richer.

I remember running a session about the high holy days. It forced me to think about what the Days of Awe meant to me. I discovered that it wasn’t only the religious aspect of the day that draws my focus. It’s the memories of being at my father’s side, holding his hand, that opened a floodgate of feelings that are always there but rarely experienced.

Paul: In the Jewish world, there’s nothing else like Hearing Men’s Voices.

Art: There’s nothing more important than human contact. We have lots of mixed sex settings, but men are unique, our experiences are different than women’s. There’s something about a men-only session that allows that uniqueness to shine, to flower. The camaraderie is special. I enjoy it, I need it.

Neal: It’s powerful. It’s a place to find your passion. I’ve never been to a session I didn’t value. You see your own life in the expression of others. There’s common ground we all share. Hearing it from others adds a powerful perspective to our own lives.

Paul: It’s a non-competitive experience with no performance expectations. You don’t have to know Hebrew. There are no skills required.